I was 10 when my eldest sister, Ronnie was engaged. Since I was so much younger in age, I was oblivious to what was happening around me. I had other priorities – my daily focus was about getting to the playground across the street.
At that time, happy occasions were often viewed and celebrated using old school values. Ceremonies, such as an engagement, were broken into many smaller productions. Female family members especially the expectant bride, her mom, and older female siblings did not attend the male side’s kurmai (engagement). This auspicious ceremony is where the soon-to-be bride’s father presents the soon to be groom with something gold, like a kara, wrist chain, neck chain, you get the point. Various gifts, trays of sweets and baskets of fruit are presented. There is much pomp and circumstance surrounding it all, because after all, it’s two families uniting.
Since I was so much younger and had a frilly mint green dress that coordinated with the gifts to be presented, I was designated to attend — as a flower girl of sorts. I was coached and scolded beforehand by my two older sisters. Thinking back though, it was quite strange to be attending a function of this magnitude, without the two of them there.
The pressure was on. It’s fair to say I was nervous, holding the single red rose to be presented to my sister’s fiancé. Per my given instructions, I was to present the rose and then stand directly behind the guy who was going to be married into our family. I had only seen him once before at my sister’s Takka. Since he was sitting on a chair in the middle of the banquet hall dance floor, suited and booted up, he was not hard to miss.
It was obvious he was nervous too, he even tried to crack a few jokes with me. Intent in only following the strict instructions given, I ignored his efforts and simply took my place behind him. Not saying a word. I just stood there watching everything unfold. Once the customary rituals had wrapped up, no one instructed me that and that I could sit down. Who was supposed to tell me? My mom and sisters weren’t there.
Before I knew it, my dad, brother, male cousins, and male uncles were nowhere to be found. I looked out towards the big hall full of unfamiliar faces. Unsure of what to do, I just stood there. My soon to be brother-in-law had to say “You need to go take a seat. They will be dancing here.”
Walking around aimlessly, I finally found a cousin and the groom’s sister, who were about to line up for the buffet. I got into line behind them to again, be attacked by uncertainty. Most of the food looked unfamiliar. The only thing that look remotely familiar was the chicken, but it had a strange red colour.
By then, my nerves had gotten the best of me. It didn’t help that the groom’s sister was eating Indian food (including the naan) with a knife and fork. Who does that? Let’s just say, my frilly dress didn’t stay cute for long.
The only unforgettable thing about that night was the red chicken. Later, I learned it was called Tandoori Chicken. All I know is that it was love at first bite. Since that first introduction, I’ve attended hundreds of Indian parties where tandoori chicken is served. More importantly, I’ve created my own tandoori chicken, fish, shrimp and even button mushrooms.
There are two ways to think of tandoori chicken. Strictly defined, it is chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in a tandoor, a clay oven that is most often used to bake bread. But you can also think of it as chicken in a yogurt and spice sauce that is simply broiled. Since I don’t have a tandoor oven, I think of it as the latter.
The thing to be careful about in this recipe is the marinating time. Let the chicken sit too long and the yogurt will turn its flesh from soft and supple to mushy. Don’t let it go for longer than 24 hours. Using a sharp knife, slash the chicken diagonally along the grain. The slashes should be about 1/2-inch deep and about 1/2-inch apart. This will help the marinade infuse into the chicken.
Couple of notes about the marinade ingredients. The chickpea flour is phenomenal. It’s my secret, in that it makes the marinade turn into this magical adhesive, without imparting flavour. Since, my mom mixes, roasts, and grinds her own garam masala I absent-mindedly use her delicious mixture. However, for those readers who don’t have an Indian mother, Garam masala can be purchased pre-mixed and readily from any supermarket.
Also, do not omit the asafetida, it has such a distinctive flavour (a cross between garlic and onion). It’s a must. Traditionally, tandoori chicken uses a lot of turmeric and ground chillies (love this type) to achieve that distinctive red orange colour, but due to Westernization food colouring is used often. That bright red sadly comes from Food Dyes like Red 40. Refrain from food dyes, instead, use saffron, a pureed beet, or paprika to get that tandoori red look.
After being exposed to the oven’s extreme heat, just like a tandoor, parts of the chicken develop delicious brown spots. Note: Don’t place the rack right below the grill, as it just chars the meat way too fast. I keep it in the middle, but still grill on high heat, which makes for even cooking and a bit of charring.
When it comes out of the oven, squeeze with fresh lemon juice, a grind of black pepper, and eat with as many green chilies as you can handle.
Oh, and yes you may eat it with a fork and knife, if you wish.
Love at First Bite – Engagement Tandoori Chicken
2 lbs Chicken Thighs (Bone-In)
1 cup yogurt (full-fat)
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Onion, peeled and halved
5 Garlic cloves, peeled
½ inch piece of Ginger
2 Chilies (More if you like it spicier. I use 4)
1 Tablespoon Garam Masala
1 Tablespoon Paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon asafetida (hing)
1 teaspoon ground mustard (raai)
2 teaspoons black pepper (More for grinding)
1 lemon (grated rind and juice)
2 Tablespoons chickpea flour
1 teaspoon salt (more, if desired)
Saffron, pureed beet, or more paprika (use whatever colouring option you have on hand)
Clean and dry chicken pieces. Make incisions on the pieces with sharp knife. Place in a Ziploc freezer bag. In blender mix all remaining ingredients of the marinade. Marinate chicken at least 6 hours, up to 24 hours.
To cook, preheat the oven to 500°F. Line a baking sheet with foil and then parchment paper. Arrange chicken on parchment. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. When cooked, sprinkle with more lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper.